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Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing
One of the most interesting things about art is how it can serve as a cultural milestone, and in many ways art proves the truth of William Faulkner's quote that "the past is never dead." This is especially true when you read a book or watch a film from two, three or even five decades ago and realize how on some issues we're still arguing over the same bullshit. While we can debate whether things are better or worse than they were, the sad truth is we're still wading through some of the same problems. So much wasted time and energy devoted to so much stupidity.

Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing just celebrated its 25th anniversary. The movie is considered by many critics to be one of the best ever made, as well as a milestone in African-American cinema. It follows a day in the life of a community in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, as racial tensions escalate after a young black man is killed by police. Do the Right Thing was very controversial when it was released in 1989, with claims the film was "anti-white" and some in the media actually warning the public that African-Americans may riot because of the movie.

But the movie is as topical and relevant as it was almost three-decades ago, especially given recent news events. Follow beneath the fold for more ....

Let me tell you the story of right hand-left hand. It's a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. The right hand: the hand of love. The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand--Love--is finished. But hold on, stop the presses; the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes now, that's right. Ooh, it's a devastating right and Hate is hurt. He's down. Left-Hand Hate KO-ed by Love. —Radio Raheem
Do the Right Thing comes out of the racial politics that surrounded New York City during the 1980s. There were multiple incidents that seemed to divide the city along racial lines (e.g., Bernhard Goetz's vigilante shootings, Tawana Brawley's rape allegations, Michael Stewart's death in police custody, etc.), as well as three prominent cases where in which mobs killed young black men that happened to step foot into the wrong neighborhood. Do the Right Thing explores that racial tension, but it does it by first giving the audience a cast of characters who fit together in an urban community and then shows the anger and resentments as the cracks grow bigger and things break apart.

Our guide into the community is Mookie (Lee), an underachiever delivering pizza with a young baby and a girlfriend (Rosie Perez) who wants something better. As Mookie moves through the neighborhood on a hot summer day, Mr. Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) is on the radio, the Korean shop owners are tending to their store, children are playing, and people are sitting on their stoops. Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) looks out her window, fending off the advances of Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) is a young activist looking for ways to pick a fight and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) is blasting Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" on his boombox. Mookie knows everyone and everyone likes Mookie, including his boss Sal (Danny Aiello) who owns a pizzeria that's been in the neighborhood as the demographics have shifted from Italian to African-American and Puerto Rican. Sal has two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), who help him run the business. Pino sees the community through his racism and is sick of what Bedford-Stuyvesant has become. Lee's writing allows you to get to know these characters, laugh with them, analyze their flaws and understand their viewpoint.

Spike Lee as Mookie
What made the movie compelling to critics and gave it significance with audiences is that it provides no easy answers and is confident in not drawing any conclusions. The tragedy of the film is spurred along by the stubbornness of men fighting over a trivial thing. Buggin’ Out believes he's going to start to change the world by getting a person of color on Sal's Wall Of Fame. Lee has said in interviews that he based Buggin’ Out on African-American leaders who propose completely unrealistic plans to stop discrimination that won't do a damn thing to fight the problem. And yet, the story still gives you a sense of where Buggin’ Out's frustration comes from. It's a predominantly African-American community, where most of Sal's customers are African-American. Is it really that unreasonable to ask Sal for at least one picture of a black person on that wall? And yet Sal is perfectly within his rights to do what he damn well pleases with his own property. Both positions are simultaneously reasonable and unreasonable, but the situation is exacerbated by the flaws of the men who hold them.
The escalation that ultimately leads to Radio Raheem's death at the hands of the police, Mookie's choice and the riot that comes afterwards feels organic and not contrived. You believe something like this could happen, because we've seen things like this happen far too often. And the fact that Lee doesn't make the situation easy and gives some elements of ambiguity is what has given the movie its long relevance. Buggin’ Out is probably one of the least likable characters in the film. But one of the biggest messages of this film is that sometimes situations don't have angels and likable people involved. Just because the guy that got beat up or killed may have been an asshole, that doesn't make the underlying social problem disappear and go away. It's still real and still there.

Do the Right Thing ends with Mookie and Sal confronting each other, and conflicting quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X about the use of violence. The movie leaves it up to the audience to decide whether anyone grew from what happened or learned a damn thing.

  • Howard Beach to Eric Garner and Michael Brown: Most of the story elements for the conflict in Do the Right Thing come from the killing of Michael Griffith in 1986. Griffith was hit by a car and killed trying to escape from a group of white men who had beaten his friends with baseball bats after eating at a pizzeria in Howard Beach. While the details of the crime are much different than what happens in Do the Right Thing, Lee used bits and pieces from the incident to build the story for the movie: the conflict between Italians and African-Americans, the baseball bat and the pizzeria. Radio Raheem's death is based on the death of Michael Stewart in 1983. With the recent death of Eric Garner, Lee edited together the footage of Garner being put in a police chokehold with the death of Radio Raheem, as well as hung banners commemorating Garner's and Michael Brown's lives.
  • Discrimination doesn't make sense: One of the most interesting scenes in the movie is the one where Mookie questions Pino about his beliefs. Pino makes exceptions and excuses for how some black people aren't really black. It doesn't make any sense because prejudice isn't logical. It exists to exist because of ignorance and has all sorts of permutations (e.g. I like gay people, but not the ones that "act gay.") And that symptom extends to almost all of the characters in one way or another. While Sal thinks of himself as much a part of the community as Mookie or anyone else, Pino's behavior can be seen as a reflection of something under the surface of Sal. Those views had to come from somewhere, and when pushed hard enough the N-word flies out of Sal's mouth during the confrontation with Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem. And as much as the black characters feel frustrated and devoid of power, the treatment of the Koreans as "others" by those in the community is not much better.
  • Mookie's choice: One of the most debated plot points of the film is the ending and Mookie's choice to throw the trash can. Some people have interpreted it as a choice made to save Sal's life from an angry mob, the argument being that it redirects the violence towards property instead of people. However, Spike Lee has stated in commentaries and interviews that Mookie's choice is about frustration and finally being fed up. He's also said that he thinks it's telling that more people get worked up about the destruction to Sal's pizzeria and how the "good guy" Mookie starts it off than the death of Radio Raheem.

Spike Lee:
I wanna clear up something once and for all ... Mookie did not throw the garbage can through the window to divert the mob from jumping on Sal. [Mookie] threw the garbage can through the window because he just saw one of his best friends get murdered in cold blood by NYPD.
  • Joe Klein was an idiot in 1989 too: As mentioned in the intro, this film was very controversial when it was initially released. Most of that controversy was based on media talking heads claiming that scenes like the one above would incite African-Americans to violence. Among those sounding that alarm were David Denby and Joe Klein, making an inherently clunky and racist argument that black people wouldn't be able to control themselves after seeing a movie, and would leave the theater and start burning down neighborhoods. Klein's article in the June 26, 1989, issue of New York Magazine warned readers that audiences would come out of the theater and react violently all across America, hurting David Dinkins chances at being mayor.
  • The Crown Heights Riot: Two-years after Do the Right Thing, rioting occurred for three days in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn after an accident in which a car driven by a Hasidic Jew killed a 7-year-old black child. Just as simmering tensions between Italian and African-American communities boil to the surface in the film, the accident brought out resentments and animosities between the black community and Orthodox Jews living in Crown Heights. The Crown Heights Riots are thought to have been a factor in David Dinkins' defeat in 1993, and the election of Rudolph Giuliani as mayor.
  • The unofficial non-sequel: Mookie appears again in Lee's 2012 film Red Hook Summer. Lee has made it explicitly clear that he doesn't consider Red Hook Summer to be a sequel to Do the Right Thing. However, during promotion for Red Hook Summer, Lee offered what he thinks happened to Mookie and Sal after the end of Do the Right Thing.

From Oliver Lyttelton at Indiewire:

"Sal left Bed Stuy," Lee told us, before adding, with laughter, "If he would have known it'd be gentrified he would have stayed. Sal, with insurance money, rebuilt his place from the ground up, in Red Hook. And he was having trouble with the Mexicans he hired, they just couldn't deliver like Mookie. They always get the wrong address, pizza's cold, people complaining. So Sal called Mookie, who's unemployed at the time. And Mookie said 'I'll think about it, [but] you've got to make sure that me and Pino (John Turturro's character in the 1989 film) are straight' What really made Mookie take the job is that Sal finally put sisters and brothers up on the wall."
  • First date for the first family: President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama saw this movie on their first date.
  • Driving Miss Daisy: While Do the Right Thing was on many critics' lists for the best film of 1989, it was not nominated for the Best Picture Oscar or Lee for Best Director. The movie that won the Best Picture honor that year was Driving Miss Daisy, which Lee has derided as being an example of the Magical Negro trope.
  • The look of Bed-Stuy: The feel of the neighborhood, which is always hot, is informed by great cinematography by Ernest Dickerson and the production design of Wynn Thomas. At times it feels like the visual compositions for shooting a play, and bounces back and forth between characters. While at other times, everything is a Dutch angle (i.e. usually signifying an off-kilter world and situation). The sets and the colors used for the sets give the neighborhood a unique feel that is both real and yet almost fable-like.

From Marc Graser at Variety:
The 22-minute film, “Do the Right Thing 25 Year Anniversary: A Beats Music Experience,” released through Beats Music’s YouTube page and other online outlets, takes a look at the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn that was featured in the 1989 movie and how it looks now. In the documentary, Lee revisits locations with cast member Danny Aiello and production designer Wynn Thomas.
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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for the great post Dr. RJ. (5+ / 0-)

    Humor Alert! No statement from this UID is intended to be true, including this one. Intended for recreational purposes only. Unauthorized interpretations may lead to unexpected results. This waiver void where prohibited. Artistic License - 420420

    by HoundDog on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 06:39:32 PM PDT

  •  I thought of this movie too. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DuzT, Lying eyes

    I was talking with a friend about it after Ferguson. Definitely worth seeing and still relevant.

  •  side issue (0+ / 0-)

    I bet the houses in the background of the top picture are worth millions--would be nice to think the former black residents made a killing--more likely they were forced out by gentrification.  The word "killing' has a different meaning in real estate than it does in ghettos.

    Actions speak louder than petitions.

    by melvynny on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 06:43:21 PM PDT

  •  Holy Smokes.. what a great diary, Doc. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AlwaysDemocrat, PapaChach
  •  Why no tip jar from Doctor RJ but a first post (0+ / 0-)

    from suka?


    Great diary.

    Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood.--Lu Xun

    by Timaeus on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 06:54:30 PM PDT

  •  when I read about (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Iberian, Geenius at Wrok, nomandates

    the man dying in a police chokehold recently, the first thing I thought of was Radio Raheem.

    I'll always remember that boom box and Radio Raheem. And the one exchange about his musical tastes (going from memory)

    "Radio Raheem, how come you don't listen to nothing but Public Enemy?"

    "I don't like nothing but Public Enemy"

    Fight the Power.

  •  never seen Spike Lee's movie (0+ / 0-)

    but that sounds like an interesting time and place to be alive - New York circa 1984-1991. Bernie Goetz, Howard Beach, Crown Heights, the Central Park jogger case, and the tragedy that was crack cocaine and its effect on the black community.

  •  Please also see School Daze (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    asterkitty, nomandates

    Lee's work is consistently remarkable and challenging, and the fact that the Academy overlooks him is their loss, not his.  

    But until I saw School Daze, I didn't catch one of the themes of Do the Right Thing.  And I am ashamed I did.  I won't spoil it, but if it has been a while since you have seen either of them, watch School Daze first.  With Dap's request ringing in your ears, watch Do the Right Thing.

    Thank you, Doctor RJ, for a great reminder of a wonderful and difficult work.

    "There is no difference between us. The only difference is that the folks with money want to stay in power..."--Shirley Sherrod

    by Wide Awake in KY on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 07:21:03 PM PDT

  •  Love/Hate and "Night of the Hunter." (5+ / 0-)

    Not to sidetrack the discussion, but that dialogue excerpt from Radio Raheem was Spike Lee  paying homage to Charles Laughton's 1955 "Night of the Hunter." Here's the similar dialogue delivered by Robert Mitchum who has the words tattooed on his fingers:

    "Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E! You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love...."

    Interesting that with a few adjustments for current slang, that homily still fit the story almost 35 years later.

  •  "You wanna boycott someone?" (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    nomandates, Lying eyes

    "You ought to start with the goddamn barber that fucked up your head."

    LMAO'd at that line when I saw it in the theater in '89.

    "The great lie of democracy, its essential paradox, is that democracy is the first to be sacrificed when its security is at risk. Every state is totalitarian at heart; there are no ends to the cruelty it will go to to protect itself." -- Ian McDonald

    by Geenius at Wrok on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 07:53:05 PM PDT

  •  Love and Hate on fingers and the monologue (0+ / 0-)

    are from Robert Mitchum's character in Night of the Hunter.

    Thanks for the great diary.  Do the Right Thing has always been in my top ten list.

    Excellent timing

  •  I finally saw it several years ago when I moved... (0+ / 0-)

    I finally saw it several years ago when I moved to Brooklyn. Easily one of the greatest movies I've seen in my life.

  •  I've always found Lee's comments about the ending (0+ / 0-)

    a bit disingenuous.  As to people focusing more on the pizzeria burning versus Raheem's death, I think most people come away fairly clear that the latter is wrong, so there's less reason to focus on it.

    Conversely, the fixation on the pizzeria burning has a rather obvious source.  The movie is called "Do The Right Thing", after all, and people want to know whether we're supposed to think that the protagonist has, in fact, 'done the right thing'.  Are we meant to endorse his action, or not?  That's what people are interested in.

    •  I love the ambiguity (0+ / 0-)

      The title of the movie is "Do The Right Thing" and yet some of the characters are assholes (including various black, white, and Korean characters). And then at the end of the movie, there are quotations by MLKjr and Malcolm X, which seem to be contradictory. So you walk out of the movie, wondering what the right thing is. It doesn't tell you the right thing, you have to decide for yourself.

      And I have to say that one of my favorite Spike Lee movies is "Crooklyn" for a nostalgic reason. The kids are playing a board game called Strat-O-Matic Baseball in one scene (here's the the Wikipedia link: Strat-O-Matic. My brother and I spent many hours playing that game. You could buy historical teams (so you could play the 1927 Yankees, when Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, against the 1961 Yankees, when Roger Maris hit 61 HRs).

      "Stupid just can't keep its mouth shut." -- SweetAuntFanny's grandmother.

      by Dbug on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 09:26:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Wake up. (nt) (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    "Woe unto ye beetles of South America." -- Charles Darwin, about to sail on The Beagle, 1831

    by Katakana on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 09:15:52 PM PDT

  •  thanks for the link! (0+ / 0-)

    enjoyed that short film

    Great diary, truly the past is never dead.

    "Shit is fucked up and bullshit"

    by polticoscott on Tue Aug 19, 2014 at 05:24:16 AM PDT

  •  Of course, innocent people's reputations were (0+ / 0-)

    ruined by Rev. Al Sharpton due to shit-for-brains Tawana Brawley, something for which the good Reverend at least has never apologized. It's something I keep in mind whenever he speaks.

    On a more pleasant note, a TV character recalled the movie as "Perform Da Correct Action."

  •  That was a great movie (0+ / 0-)

    Sad, but great.

    Especially relevant: the MLK and Malcolm X quotes at the end.

    And God said, "Let there be light"; and with a Big Bang, there was light. And God said "Ow! Ow My eyes!" and in a flash God separated light from darkness. "Whew! Now that's better. Now where was I. Oh yea . . ."

    by Pale Jenova on Tue Aug 19, 2014 at 07:22:16 AM PDT

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